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TVA Will Close Coal Plant Despite Political Pressure

On Thursday, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the longtime federal corporation that handles electricity in seven states, voted to shut down the Paradise coal-fired power plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

The decision is a humiliation for President Donald Trump, who took a personal interest in the vote and put pressure on TVA to save the plant:

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump
Coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix and @TVAnews should give serious consideration to all factors before voting to close viable power plants, like Paradise #3 in Kentucky!

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Trump, who has made saving coal a key plank of his presidency, may have also been interested in the Paradise plant because it buys from a mining company owned by one of his friends and political donors, Robert Murray. But he wasn’t alone. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, and Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, all urged TVA not to close the plant as well.

The Paradise plant was the largest coal-fired power plant of its kind when it was completed in 1970, but it has gradually had its burners shut down and replaced with natural gas as it has experienced breakdowns and become less economical — it is currently generating power only 10 percent of the time. Another plant in Bull Run will also be shut down. It is estimated the closure of both will save TVA $1 billion.

It is worth noting that the closure of these two plants will only reduce the total proportion of energy that TVA generates from coal by 1 percent. Furthermore, the closure will eliminate 131 jobs, and there should be a plan in place for helping those workers.

But it is clear that Trump does not have the pull to reverse the clock on energy trends. Aside from being terrible for the environment, coal is gradually getting less economical, and what is left of the industry is increasingly automated, employing fewer workers. The president will not be able to tweet away that reality.

IMAGE: Delegates from West Virginia hold signs supporting coal on the second day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo

 

U.S. Judge Delays Criminal Sentencing Of Duke Energy

By Anne Blythe, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) (TNS)

RALEIGH, N.C. — A federal judge took the opportunity to share what he described as a “light moment” on Tuesday after agreeing to delay by one month the criminal sentencing of Duke Energy related to coal-ash pollution.

U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm J. Howard had read sealed documents provided by Duke Energy, in which attorneys laid out concerns that could arise out of an expected plea agreement in which the utility would be placed on probation for five years related to nine criminal charges stemming from illegal coal ash discharges.

Once convicted of a crime under the Clean Water Act, the utility would be disqualified from entering into new or modified contracts with the federal government.

That could mean trouble, Duke officials say, for military bases in Duke Energy territory — Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, were mentioned in court — as well as federal courthouses, post offices, and large office complexes scattered through North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and elsewhere.

Duke officials had asked for the delay of a sentencing hearing that had been set for later this week in Greenville so they could try to work out a waiver with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Howard, the federal judge who presided over the 20-minute hearing, asked about the possibility of the lights going out in Fort Bragg, whose contract with Duke Energy expires in September.

Banumathi Rangarajan, the assistant U.S. attorney whose investigation into Duke led to nine misdemeanor charges against the utility for polluting four of the state’s rivers with coal ash, told Howard she did not expect the worst.

“No power will be shut off, your honor,” she said.

Howard granted the delay, not for the reasons requested by Duke, which were filed under seal with the federal court. Instead, the judge said figuring out the logistics for keeping a company on probation for five years had been a difficult task that needed more thought.

The sentencing was rescheduled for May 14 in Greenville. Then the judge brought out lyrics for a song that he had been reminded of while reading documents in preparation for the Tuesday hearing.

One of his aides had taken a minute “to consult Mr. Google,” then produced the lyrics for “The Nights the Lights Went Out In Georgia,” a so-called “Southern Gothic” song written in 1972 by songwriter Bobby Russell and sung by Vicki Lawrence.

The judge singled out one line and recited it.

“Don’t trust your soul to no backwoods Southern lawyer;

“Cause the judge in the town’s got bloodstains on his hand,” Howard said, with a touch of song in his voice.

Then with a smile, he looked down from the bench at the attorneys in his courtroom and added: “I don’t think that applies to any of my Southern lawyers’ friends.”

Then he pointed them to the copies of the song he had printed for them and recessed the hearing for a month.

Photo: Duke Energy via Flickr

Renewable Energy Companies Use New Clout In Statehouses

By Jeffrey Stinson, Stateline.org (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Earlier this year, Ohio became the first state to freeze a scheduled increase in the amount of electricity that must be generated by wind, solar and other renewable sources. The move gave advocates of repealing states’ mandatory green energy standards a rare victory after defeats the last two years.

But the Ohio victory may have been an aberration: Green energy industries have become mainstream businesses with the political clout to match the fossil fuel industry and big electric utilities in many statehouses, and they are using that influence to defend the renewable energy standards in place in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

Green industry is creating jobs, providing lease payments to landowners and taxes for local government in many states. Companies like Siemens and GE are highly invested in green energy. And many state lawmakers don’t want to see the economic benefits shrink or disappear.

Wind represents about $118 billion in private investment in the U.S. economy and sustains about 73,000 jobs, according to the American Wind Energy Association. About $17.3 billion a year is invested in new wind farms.

The solar industry, meanwhile, employs about 143,000 people and pumps nearly $20 billion a year into the economy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The economic impact of the fossil fuel industry is much larger, but Tom Plant of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University noted that green energy has “become mainstream … and a pretty significant component of economies of the states.”

Nevertheless, Ohio’s action gave hope to repeal advocates like John Eick of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that other states will follow this coming year and slow or modify the mandates, if not repeal them outright.

“It (Ohio) may have laid the groundwork for other states to move in this direction in the coming year,” said Eick, director of the task force on energy, environment and agriculture for ALEC, the free-market think tank of state lawmakers and private industry that drafted model repeal legislation.

State renewable portfolio standards are an outgrowth of the energy deregulation movement of the 1990s and rising concern over the environmental damage caused by greenhouse gases.

The standards require utilities to sell an escalating amount of power generated by renewable or alternative fuels, which can vary from wind and solar to biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric. Many states also require greater energy efficiencies as part of the package.

Ohio’s 2008 law required utilities to gradually phase in the purchase of renewable, alternative and emerging energy technologies until it comprised 25 percent of their electricity output by 2025. It also mandated a 22 percent reduction in consumption by then.

The mandates are now frozen until 2017 while a legislative commission studies whether the standards contribute to rising electricity rates and should be altered.

How much electricity must come from renewable sources varies across the states. California, for instance, requires 25 percent by 2017 and 33 percent by 2020, according to a database kept by the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy. Connecticut requires 27 percent by 2020.

In addition to states with mandatory standards, seven — Alaska, Indiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Virginia — have voluntary goals.

Combined with federal and state green energy tax breaks, state renewable portfolios have been instrumental in building the renewable sector. They “drive demand,” said Susan Sloan, vice president for state policy at the American Wind Energy Association.

Technological advancement is making green energy more economically competitive compared to fossil fuel, especially coal.

Although debate rages on how much the mandates cost ratepayers, a survey in May by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory calculated that from 2010-2012 they drove up rates by 0.9 percent.

Electricity generated by wind power costs $28-$32 a megawatt hour, Colorado State’s Plant said, while natural gas is about $45 a megawatt hour and coal generation is $48-$50 per megawatt hour.

Green energy will get another boost from new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules that will force old coal-fired plants to cut their carbon emissions by 30 percent. That will make coal generation even more costly, said Steve Kalland, executive director of the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University.

Battles over the portfolios heated up two years ago after ALEC drafted model legislation to roll back or repeal them because, Eick said, “government entities shouldn’t distort the energy markets with mandated quotas favoring one source of power over another.”

Eick’s task force, which drafted the legislation, now comprises 130 state legislators from across the country and about 50 companies, including fossil fuel producers and investor-owned utilities.

Although the task force has no renewable energy companies as members, Eick said, ALEC isn’t anti-green energy. The group doesn’t favor any one source of energy, he said. Nor is it opposed to voluntary renewable goals. But, he said, the markets shouldn’t be distorted, and electric customers shouldn’t have affordability and reliability put at risk by government intervention.

Twenty-six bills to roll back or repeal the mandates were introduced in 2013, after Republicans won a large number of legislative seats in the 2012 election, according to tracking by Colorado State’s Center for the New Energy Economy. None passed. Just 14 were introduced this year. Only Ohio rolled back in a significant way.

Ohio’s freeze, approved by the Republican legislature, was signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in June after he first threatened to veto a rollback.

In addition to ALEC, the utility First Energy and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce pushed for the rollback. On the other side, the Ohio Manufacturers Association and companies like Whirlpool and Honeywell opposed the rollback. Wind energy accounts for about 5,000 jobs in the state, the Environmental Defense Fund said.

Wind, solar and other alternative sources are increasingly popular with the public compared to fossil fuels, polls indicate. And many companies want to demonstrate they’re in favor of environmentally friendly policies.

If there’s any state that could follow Ohio’s lead this coming year, Eick said, it is Kansas, where standards mandate 20 percent renewables by 2020.

Efforts to first repeal and then phase out the standards were defeated in the House this year after winning overwhelming Senate approval. The repeal’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Dennis Hedke, said it’s too early to say whether he will push again.

But the climate would appear ripe, especially now that Republican Gov. Sam Brownback says he supports phasing out the standards after previously remaining silent on the issue.

Kansas is home to energy giant Koch Industries, which backs ALEC and Americans for Prosperity, whose state chapter favors repeal. The state is the nation’s 10th biggest producer of oil and home to the Hugoton natural gas fields. And, according to the Energy Information Administration, 61 percent of the state’s electricity comes from coal plants.

However, wind energy has a foothold in the state and accounts for about 19 percent of electricity generation. The industry has made an $8 billion capital investment in the state, accounting for some 13,000 jobs, said Karin Brownlee, spokesperson for Kansans for Wind Energy. Siemens manufactures housing for its wind turbines there.

Wind has become “a big cash crop” for Kansas farmers, she said, with wind farms providing about $16 million a year in lease payments to landowners. Local government receives about $10 million a year in lieu of tax payments from them, which is good revenue for rural counties.

Brownlee, a former Republican state senator and former ALEC member, said she doesn’t know whether another repeal effort will erupt when lawmakers convene in January. But, she said, the industry now is a “huge” part of the Kansas economy and is prepared with the facts for any fight.

Oregon Department of Transportation via Flickr.com

U.S. Inflation Falls For First Time In Over A Year

Washington (AFP) — Consumer prices in the United States fell in August for the first time in more than a year, dragged lower by declines in energy, the Labor Department reported Wednesday.

The consumer price index fell 0.2 percent on the month. It was the first decline in CPI since April 2013, surprising analysts who estimated it would be unchanged from July.

Excluding volatile food and energy prices, core CPI was flat in August.

Food prices edged up 0.2 percent, while energy prices accelerated their march downward, dropping a hefty 2.6 percent, the largest decline since March 2013.

Gasoline prices led the decline, down 4.1 percent. Electricity prices were the only major energy component that increased in August, up a scant 0.1 percent.

Year-over-year overall inflation was up 1.7 percent, easing from 2.0 percent in July.

The data offered fresh evidence of tame inflation, well below the Federal Reserve’s longer-term 2.0 percent target.

The weak report came amid a two-day meeting of the Fed’s monetary policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee.

“Startlingly weak core CPI looks like a fluke but is a powerful boost to FOMC doves today,” said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics.

The central bank, in a post-meeting statement, is expected maintain its stance that its key near-zero interest rate will not be raised before mid-2015.

The personal consumption expenditures price index, the Fed’s preferred inflation measure, rose 1.6 percent in July from a year ago, while the core PCE index increased 1.5 percent.

AFP Photo/Frederic J. Brown

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